Faithful Execution of Florida Law, or of Florida Citizens?

SYDNEY FELDMAN—As State Attorney for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, Aramis Ayala is “the prosecuting officer of all trial courts in the [Ninth Circuit].” Fla. Const. art. V, § 17. In this capacity, Ayala is charged daily with making “tough choices as to which crimes to prosecute and which penalties to pursue in consideration of [her] offices’ limited resources.”

The case of Ayala v. Scott stems from a press conference on March 15, 2017, during which Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in any cases handled in her office. She explained that,  “while [she does have] discretion to pursue death sentences, [she] determined that doing so [would not be] in the best interest of [the] community or in the best interest of justice.” In response, Florida Governor Rick Scott reassigned all pending death-penalty eligible cases to the State Attorney for Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, Brad King.

In so doing, Governor Scott cited his constitutional responsibility under Article IV, Section 17(a) of the Florida Constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” More specifically, Governor Scott argued that his authority to reassign cases was derived from Florida Statute Section 27.14(1), which allows the governor to assign state attorneys to other circuits “if, for any . . . good and sufficient reason, the Governor determines that the ends of justice would be best served.”

Ayala challenged the Governor’s executive authority within this context. But the Supreme Court of Florida disagreed with Ayala, denying her petition for a writ of quo warranto, and holding that, “on these facts, the Governor has not abused his broad discretion in reassigning the cases at issue to King.” Importantly, the Court refused to address Ayala’s prosecutorial discretion because it found that, in announcing her “blanket ban,” Ayala “exercised no discretion at all.” The court focused on the need for “individualized determinations” regarding the penalties sought in each case.

It might be argued that the Court’s finding, however, is incompatible with Florida’s constitutionally defined role of the State Attorney: to “be the prosecuting officer of all trial courts in [her] circuit.” Fla. Const. art. V, § 17. Notably, Florida Legislature does not mandate that a prosecutor seek the death penalty in any case. In fact, “Florida’s capital sentencing scheme affords a duly elected State Attorney the discretion to pursue either of two possible sentences”: death or life imprisonment without parole. Thus, in eliminating her option to seek the death penalty, Ayala retained another route: she could still seek life imprisonment without parole, in accordance with Florida legislature’s sentencing scheme.

It is interesting to note that this case appears to turn on Ayala’s announcement of a “blanket ban.” If, for example, Ayala had not announced her intentions with respect to each case generally, but instead, made an individualized determination that each case did not warrant the death penalty, the Court’s holding would likely have been different—Ayala probably would have retained her cases. In other words, the Court has held that the governor’s executive power does not stem from the requirement that Ayala actually seek the death penalty in any case, but rather that she make an individualized determination in each case.

This distinction, however, does not appear in the Florida Constitution, Florida Statutes, or previous case law. And, put simply, it is not a “good and sufficient reason” for the governor to determine that the “ends of justice would be best served” in the hands of another prosecutor.

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